It takes Donald Trump to make Ted Cruz look like a feminist.
First, as most Trump accounts must begin, a recap for those who have lost track of the volley of insults. An anti-Trump super PAC started circulating a Facebook ad it said was aimed at Mormon women voting in this week’s Utah Republican primary. It featured an image of the GOP front-runner’s wife, Melania, nude and splayed on a fur rug, part of a 2000 magazine photo shoot on her husband’s gold-encrusted plane. The political ad displayed the words, “Meet Melania Trump. Your new First Lady. Or, you could support Ted Cruz on Tuesday.”
On Tuesday, Cruz did beat Trump by a 55-point margin, but Trump made sure the victory was bitter. That night, he tweeted, “Lyin’ Ted Cruz just used a picture of Melania from a G.Q. shoot in his ad. Be careful, Lyin’ Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!” It is unclear what “beans” Trump was referring to, but many took it to be a reference to Heidi Cruz’s past brushes with depression, about which the campaign has spoken openly in the past. Cruz took the high road, tweeting, “Donald, real men don’t attack women. Your wife is lovely, and Heidi is the love of my life.”
Trump in turn retweeted a follower who compared an unflattering photo of Heidi Cruz with one of Melania Trump that read: “No need to spill the beans. The images are worth a thousand words.” For a change, Trump hadn’t started out insulting a woman’s looks, but he seemed happy enough to get there.
As for the ad featuring Melania, few feminists these days go for “slut shaming,” a shorthand for condemning a woman for deploying her sexuality on, apparently, her own terms. The term references an implied double standard that valorizes men like Trump for having acquired the prize of a beautiful woman, or women, while pinning a scarlet A on the women themselves.
Liz Mair of Make America Awesome PAC, the anti-Trump group that made the ads, said feminists weren’t the intended audience for the ad. Nonetheless, she used feminist-ish language to describe it. “It’s not the nudity, it’s the stereotypical porn-lite imagery involving female vulnerability/subservience/tethering,” she wrote. More likely, the use of the photo was intended to signal the lack of modesty, a topic important enough for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) that it devotes a section of its website to it.
There were no exit polls in Utah, so we don’t know if LDS women were disproportionately disdainful of Trump or, perhaps, his wife. But the irony is that, fur rug or not, by her own account, there is no more traditional avatar of wifeliness than Melania Trump.
Take the British GQ story that accompanied that plane photo shoot of the then 26-year-old model known as Melania Knauss. One of the photos was captioned, “Talk of Trump running for president has fueled suggestions that Melania may one day be America’s first lady. ‘ “I think every woman would like to be,’ she says. ‘Why not?’” the story read,. It continued: ”Heavyweight political commentators may scoff, but the delectable Miss Knauss is relishing the prospect of a future pressing the flesh on state occasions. ‘I will put all my effort into it, and I will support my man,’ she said recently.”
In an undated interview with Parenting that seems to be a few years old, Melanie Trump talked about her passion for architecture and design as inspiring her QVC jewelry line, but stressed that her job as a mother came first. She proffered parenting tips that were straight out of the 1950s. Of her husband, she said, “He didn’t change diapers and I am completely fine with that. It is not important to me. It’s all about what works for you. It’s very important to know the person you’re with. And we know our roles. I didn’t want him to change the diapers or put Barron to bed. I love every minute of it.” She repeated, “We know what our roles are and we are happy with them.”
By contrast, while Cruz’s policy platform is a feminist’s worst nightmare, the Cruz marriage looks much more like a partnership of equals. A nuanced profile by Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins makes clear that, like her husband, Heidi Cruz is an ambitious, hard-charging professional. For more than a year, they had a long distance marriage: Heidi at the White House and Ted in Austin, Texas. Eventually, like Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama before her, Heidi Cruz chose to make significant career sacrifices to support her husband’s political future, leaving her Washington job to join him in Texas. (It was during that period, in 2005, that she struggled, and was found sobbing on the highway by a police officer who believed she was a “danger to herself.”)
Heidi would later frankly recall encountering sexism as the only woman at the Houston office of Goldman Sachs. “When I came out of Washington and the White House, I didn’t feel that there was really a glass ceiling in the administration … and Texas was very different,” she said in 2011. She described a “very traditional culture” that discouraged separate professional tracks for wives, and she also pushed back at “people who believe that women who work outside the home are uncaring and can’t be good mothers …. I would work and want to have a career, regardless of if my husband works. It’s not only for the money.”
The official, unpaid role of first lady — the very title — is uniquely patriarchal and archaic, even as it has been held over the years by a series of spirited and accomplished women. The last Republican woman to be first lady, Laura Bush, sounded vaguely dissatisfied in a 2014 interview about the “position,” such as it is. “The interesting question really is not should they receive a salary but should they be able to work for a salary at their job that they might have already had,” the former librarian said diplomatically of women in the role. She added, “A first gentleman might continue to work at whatever he did if he was a lawyer or whatever.”
This year, we might get a so-called first gentleman and put that trial balloon to the test. And it will be because Hillary Clinton — after having attained what, in the younger Melania Knauss’ words, “every woman would like to be” — decided that job wasn’t enough. Maybe it won’t be enough for Melania Trump, either.